Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sukku (why the ban was necessary)

Over the last few years, Rs 50 has become a sort of benchmark for expenditure, for me and other friends who aren't exactly rolling in it. Because Rs 50 is a cup of coffee at a cafe like Barista or Costa.

When picking up cotton fabric at Lajpatnagar, or new earrings, when seeking membership of the Delhi Union of Journalists, when deciding between waiting for a bus or taking an auto, when tempted by a colourful glass bauble: expenses are tested against this standard - if something costs me the equivalent of two cups of coffee, it's justifiable.

Do I hesitate before walking into a cafe and blowing up Rs 50 on a cup of coffee that isn't half as good as the filter coffee at office?

I usually don't. Most of you reading this, don't.

And yet, most employers hesitate before giving Rs 50 as a yearly raise to the people who wash their dirty coffee cups. Or their dirty underwear.

Rs 50.

We walk into a store, pick up a nice pair of heels for Rs 700, at a monsoon sale, and count ourselves lucky. We wear fancy heels maybe twelve times in a year and then get bored. Or the fashions change. But what if a cobbler asks for Rs 50 to mend a pair of shoes? How many of us have paid a cobbler Rs 50? Ever?

The price of a cup of coffee.

Sukku (10) comes from Gadgaon, Jharkhand. In her village. The job was supposed to be entail 'playing' with someone else's kids. But a little prodding revealed that Sukku, about 8 or 9 at the time, also had to wash clothes. and dishes. For all of this, the family paid her a grand sum of Rs 50 per month.

For some time, my cup of coffee is going to be coloured by that little fact called Sukku.

I asked her whether they gave her food.

They did not. "What do you think, they said - We'll give money also, and food also?"

Sukku went to work at 8 am and stayed till 4pm. An eight-hour work-day. She doesn't even know the mistress' name. all she knows is that she took care of a boy called Rohit and a girl called Kamla (both less than 3 years old). One comfort was that they didn't beat her.

She worked for a year. But before that, things were harder. She used to go to the brick kilns. "I lifted bricks on my head. Five bricks at a time. Don't know how much money I got. I never saw any. They'd give some food in the afternoon."

Sukku has never been to school. If she did, she could have got that one afternoon meal for just attending classes. That much is her due. If we wanted, we could make sure she gets her due.


suresh said...


Thanks for bringing these tragic stories to our attention. I would just like to add that the moral case for banning child labour would remain even if all working children were treated "well." I think the point has to be made that no decent and moral society can accept having some of its children work during the years when they should be doing other things. The fact that many of these children are exploited makes matters worse but the case for banning child labour does not rest on the fact of their exploitation.

I make this somewhat pedantic point because one reaction to your stories could be "but we treat our child workers really well" and so on from those employing child labour. It needs emphasizing that child labour is unacceptable whether or not the child workers are treated "well".

Again, thanks.

Hawkeye said...

If the govt bans child labor, will it feed the family or compensate for the loss of income caused?

Just curious? What would be your solution here?

suresh said...

I don't think compensating families will work. For one thing, how does one identify which families are going to get compensation? There is a downside to banning child labour - as there are downsides to many other social policies. For instance, the quota system does affect negatively some people while undoubtedly benefiting some others. I guess when we ban child labour we are making a statement that no matter how adverse the resulting consequences, the ban is still the "right" thing to do.

But you are right - a ban enacted without thought to what will be the resulting consequences - is not only cynical but also stupid. This is not trivial: I remember a report from Bangladesh where a ban on child labour in certain industries resulted in children moving to even more dangerous occupations like child prostitution. I think we in India would do well to remember that such things can happen as a result of the ban.

I don't know if the government officials who enacted this ban ever thought of the resulting consequences. My suspicion is that they have not, but who knows, I may be mistaken. It would help if along with the ban, there are also programmes to improve the quality of schools and so on, but I suppose that is asking "too much."

kuffir said...

you write these heart-wrenching stories..and so well..and then you go and post arguments that dismiss the importance of these make me wonder!

what can i say? keep at it.

Josephus P. Franks said...

Wow, Annie, I just read your blog for a bit - it's really good. That being said, I have an aversion to blogs, I don't know why but I do... can't bring myself to read 'em. I think it's the amount of right-wing wackos with blogs that have created what is called the 'blathersphere'.... in the U.S., in the U.S., I should mention, I don't know how it is in India...

I was interested to read a few of your stories in the 'why the ban was necessary series'... reminded me of something I noticed when I was in India and made me very uncomfortable at the time... I was at a friend of my stickfighting instructor's in Bombay - he wasn't in, his wife was. She invited me in and offered me dinner. (I was hoping at the time that Indian culture would prove to be similar to Korean-American culture in one respect - Korean-Americans tend to register shock when anyone other than ethnic Koreans enjoy eating their delicious food; and after the shock, come more and more helpings ;) So anyway, I sat down to eat, and she sat down to wait - to wait for the two young servant girls in the kitchen to do the cooking. I forget what the pretense was, but she screamed at them at one point, manically, for I don't know what, and then turned to me and said in English something to the effect of 'it's so hard to find good help these days'. As if I'd understand, or to impress me, or as if to cement a common class understanding we both shared.

Anyhow, that was shocking to me. In the US, servants are for the richest ten percent or so of households (maybe that's the same in India, just a smaller middle class? - but these aren't live-in or working-day servants, these are mostly workers who may clean once or twice weekly... then again, the statistics might not be catching "illegal" labor).

We are so much more civilized here in the States - we still brutally exploit people just like that woman at whose house I ate, but the people we exploit are continents away and we don't do the shouting (or beating or raping) ourselves - that's a job for the line managers at the Nike factory in the free trade zone... What do you think we are, barbarians!?

Anyway, in the U.S., dishwashing machines outnumber humans who are paid to wash dishes by a huge margin, more vacuum cleaners exist than humans paid to sweep floors... which in a well-designed world, would be the case everywhere (minus the exploitation elsewhere in our economy helping to make the affordable dishwashers and vacuum cleaners possible). I think it was Bertrand Russel who made the point like a century ago that, in capitalism, when the safety pin industry comes up with new technology to produce twice as many safety pins per (hu)man-hour, instead of cutting its workers' workday in half - which is what a philosopher would do - the factory will lay off half its workers, and force the other half to work twice as many hours to produce twice the number of safety pins. (and then the advertising industry will employ a few of the laid off employees to create propaganda to convince everyone that absolutely no one will want to fuck them unless they have 500 safety pins hanging off every bit of fabric on their bodies... they'll die lonely and unloved... etc...)

Annie Zaidi said...

kuffir: elsewhere, you accuse me of waging someone else's ideological battle. i'm too busy to either rebutt or take offence at the moment, but here's a task for you - why don't you outline what you would do, if you were the PM? assume, for a moment (i know it is mostly fact, anyway) that almost all child labourers come from very poor families. how would you get them into school, while also feeding them, clothing them, giving them healthcare etc, and also be fair/just to their parents. Do you have a plan in mind?

josephus: thank ye. my blog is an extension of my work and attempt to understand and analyse things. cannot comment on blogs in India, in general, but from a US perspective, you might be interested in 'the renegade of junk' -

do visit again.

kuffir said...


you shouldn't take offense - because 1. if you recall any of my earlier comments here, you'd know quite well that i greatly admire your writing and your views on a lot of issues 2. whatever i said elsewhere should be seen in that light - that we both agree on many issues..but...

that said, i guess you could still take offense because 1. you don't know as much of my views as i do of yours..(your blog went up on my blogroll the first time i stumbled here by accident, a year ago) 2. therefore you could misinterpret the intensity of my disppointment (with a blogger i had regarded as like-minded)..,expressed so emphatically there, as blind opposition. i don't know whether i'm clear enough to you...

the second part of your response : 'why don't you outline what you'd do?'

education and health are the only two issues i feel very strongly about.. i feel they should become the top two issues on everyone's mind in india because they concern the weakest of the weak..i don't much care what politics is played around every other kind of issue (though i might have some views..but i am too old to feel strongly about any other issue)..but i feel these two issues deserve the highest attention.. on not just the government's part. i think the situation on both fronts has long floundered on the crisis level, but was still ignored..but now we face what could be making the greatest mistake in our history if we continue to do so. because we've more children outside school than ever in history..and we'll never be able to solve this problem of illiteracy and neglect of childhood rights if we don't do it now. that's my view.

as for solutions : i had written about this subject a few months ago on my blog..and i request you to please check before you respond further - .

kuffir said...

'what could be making the greatest mistake..'

pl. read that as 'what could turn out to be the greatest mistake'..

kuffir said...

and please check the comments too..where i've elaborated on the 'solution' i propose..

bas dus minute ki baat hai.

Annie Zaidi said...

will do so

Tweets by @anniezaidi